PRONUNCIATION: AN-glo aw-STRAY-lee-uhns
POPULATION: 19.3 million (2007)
RELIGION: Christianity (majority); Islam; Buddhism; Judaism
Australia is a relatively young country in the world community. Yet it is also a very ancient land, where for over 40,000 years the Aboriginal people had lived in harmony with their environment. When England first settled Australia in 1788, however, and made it a penal colony for its overcrowded prison population, all that was to change.
Australia was rich in mineral wealth and became a leading world producer of wool and wheat. But links with Britain kept it isolated until World War II, after which it turned more and more towards the United States. Today, Australia is becoming a multicultural society that is seeking to establish itself as a leading nation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Australia has had a democratic form of government in which individual freedom has been prized above all else. It is considered a safe, peaceful country that has never experienced internal war. Its standard of living is high and the country has some of the world's most uniquely beautiful environments. Consequently, one of its fastest-growing industries today is tourism.
Australia's identity is a result of its English and European past and its multicultural (i.e., a European and Asian mix of cultures) present. In a speech in Indonesia in 1992, the Australian prime minister Paul Keating said that Australia's identity in the 1990s was changing "due to the multi-cultural reality of our society, and the final passing of … our colonial past."
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Australia is both a continent and an island, situated in the southern hemisphere between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It measures about the same in area as the United States (excluding Alaska), yet it has a total population of only about 21 million people. Of those 21 million people, about 80% live in just 10 cities, all by the sea. By far the largest of these are Sydney and Melbourne. Approximately 92% of the population (about 19.3 million) is of European descent. In the 2006 Australian Census, about 25% of Australians specifically listed themselves as having English ancestry while another 29% listed themselves simply as Australian.
Most of the country is empty of people. In fact, Australia has one of the lowest population densities in the world. The state of Western Australia, for example, is three times the size of the US state of Texas, yet has only about 1.5 million people. The main reason for the low population density is that Australia is an extremely dry continent—two-thirds of the continent is desert.
Apart from the flat desert lands, however, the country's geography is quite varied. It includes large areas of tropical rain forests in the northeast, a long mountain range running along the eastern coast (the Great Dividing Range), snowfields in the southeast, and flat tablelands in the west.
The climate varies tremendously, from the tropics in the north with their "wet" and "dry" seasons to the much colder climates of Tasmania.
Because the country was first settled by England in 1788, most Australians were of English origin and, until 1950, about 90% of Australians were born there. Some 9% were immigrants from Britain. However, after World War II, the country took in more than 5 million immigrants from Europe and, in the post-Vietnam-War years, Australia was a major recipient of refugees from Indochina. The population in the early 21st century has become more international.
Immigration dropped dramatically in the late 1990s. Almost all immigrants have chosen to live in the ever-growing cities and have not populated the sparse country areas as was hoped.
The language of Australia is English, brought by the first English settlers. However, the accent is far more nasal and less clipped than the British English accent.
Since World War II, the culture of the United States has had a large influence on Australia, so that Australians are using many American expressions introduced by movies and television shows. However, a typical Australian greeting is still "G'day," and men routinely call each other "mate." To congratulate someone, Australians say, "Goodonya" ("Good on you"), and to reassure someone, they say, "She'll be right, mate." And, of course, there is what is known as the Great Australian Adjective—"bloody"—before almost everything, as in, "Oh bloody hell! I'm going to be bloody late for school again!"
Australia is an ancient land and for more than 40,000 years its Aboriginal people had lived there undisturbed, until the Europeans came over. Over time, a complex and rich Aboriginal mythology has evolved and has been passed down from generation to generation. This mythology is known as the Dreamtime Legends—the Dreamtime being the mystical time during which the Aborigines' ancestors established their world. These myths from ancient times are accepted as a record of absolute truth, and dominate the cultural life of the people.
There are many myths of the Dreamtime. One tells how the sun was made: Long ago in Dreamtime there was no sun, and the people had to search for food in the dim light of the moon. One day, an emu and a crane started quarreling. In a rage, the crane ran to the emu's nest and snatched one of its huge eggs. She flung the egg high into the sky, where it shattered and the yolk burst into flames, causing such a huge fire that its light revealed for the first time the beauty of the world below. When the spirits up in the sky saw this great beauty, they decided that the earth inhabitants should have this light each day. So, every night, the sky-people collected a pile of dry wood, ready to be set afire as soon as the morning star appeared. But a problem arose—if the day was cloudy, the star could not be seen and no one lit the fire. So the sky people asked the Kookaburra, who had a loud, braying laugh, to call them every morning. When the bird's laugh was first heard, the fire in the sky was lit but threw out little heat or light. By noon, when all the wood was burning, the heat was more intense. Later, the fire slowly died down until the sun had set.
It is a strict rule of the Aboriginal tribes that nobody may imitate the Kookaburra's call, because that could offend the bird and he could remain silent. Then darkness would again descend upon the earth and its inhabitants.
There are some folklore tales regarding the early European settlers. Many stories have been inspired by the figure of William Buckley, an English convict sent to Australia who escaped from prison and lived among the Aboriginals. There are legends and folk songs about "bushrangers," escaped convicts that were wild enough to be unwilling or unable to live in mainstream communities. Ned Kelly represents one such popular folk hero. Some stories about gold diggers from the mid-1800s have survived as folk lore, painting these rugged men, who generally showed disdain for authority, as heroes of the land. Other folk tales relate to the drovers and shearers (cattle and sheep herders) of early European settlers. Romanticized tales of life in the bush or outback continue to be popular in modern culture.
Australia is predominantly a Christian country. Most Anglo-Australians are members of the Anglican Church of Australia, accounting for 19% of the total population in the 2006 Australian Census. The Roman Catholic Church, however, is the largest denomination in the country with about 25% of the population claiming membership. The Uniting Church in Australia was established in 1977 through the union of the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australia, and the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The Uniting Church, which embraces doctrines and confessions from all three of its founding traditions, was the third largest single denomination in the country in 2006 with a membership of about 1.1 million. About 18% of the total population claimed no religion in the 2006 Census.
Apart from those holidays celebrated throughout the Christian world, such as Christmas and Easter, Australia celebrates some of its own.
ANZAC Day on April 25 each year is set aside to honor Australians who died in all wars. ANZAC stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Veterans of the armed forces march through the streets of Australian cities and towns in the morning and share drinks and memories in the afternoon. It is a solemn and patriotic day when the country remembers its war heroes.
Australia Day is celebrated on January 26, commemorating the day in 1788 when the English soldiers raised their flag and declared Australia a new colony. Today it is celebrated with street fairs, parties, picnics, and fireworks. It coincides with the last days of the long summer vacation from school and is a fun time for families. Backyard barbecues are very traditional on this day—followed by time on the beach or in the pool.
Boxing Day (December 26) is also a public holiday in Australia. It is known as a traditional day to spend at the beach and in practical terms it makes for a longer Christmas break.
RITES OF PASSAGE
At age five, children begin kindergarten at their local state or private primary school, which they attend through the sixth grade. There is usually a ceremony celebrating the child's graduation from primary to secondary school, consisting of a ceremony at the school with a guest speaker. There is usually a family celebration as well. The child then enters the high school (grades 7 to 10), followed by senior school (grades 11 and 12), and graduates from senior school at about age 18.
When students are in the twelfth grade they attend a senior school dance called the Formal. This is like the American tradition of prom night, when students hire limousines to attend a formal function sponsored by their school, usually held at some reasonably glamorous location. Just as in the US, the students place much emphasis on having the "right" clothes and the "right" date.
The 18th birthday party is a large, peer-group party celebrating entry into the adult world. At age 18 the young adult is given all legal rights. The 21st birthday celebration, a much more traditional family-and-friend celebration party, often is held in a hotel or restaurant. Gifts are traditionally given and this celebration often marks the time the young person leaves home to live independently.
Men shake hands when introduced to each other or to a woman. Women often greet other women with a kiss on the cheek.
Pub life—the sharing of drinks with friends at a hotel bar—plays a large role in most Australians' social lives. The "shout" system is used—i.e., one person in a small circle of friends buys a drink for themselves and for everyone else in the circle. When it comes time for the next round, another person in the circle does the same—and so on, until each person has "shouted a round" of drinks for their group.
When invited to dinner, guests are usually asked to come at "7:30 for 8:30" which means the guests should arrive somewhere between 7:30 and 8:30 pm for pre-dinner drinks, with dinner to be served at 8:30.
Young people in Australia usually begin dating around age 14 or 15 and make their own choices of friends and partners in life. They tend to marry in their mid-20s.
At the 2006 Australian Census, an estimated 33% of all dwellings were owner-occupied, with an additional 32% of dwellings being purchased by the occupant, either through a loan or rent-to-own plan. The most popular home is the freestanding brick house with a red tiled roof, a front lawn, and a back garden. Most people want to own a home and usually rent until they can afford one. There is a trend toward larger houses and prices of houses vary according to the desirability of the location. However, housing prices in all cities have increased steadily over the years. The average household size was 2.6 persons in 2006.
Australia does not have the extremes of wealth and poverty that the US does, and therefore does not have extravagant mansions or slum dwellings. Instead, homes tend to be more like those found in a typical American middle-class suburban dwelling. Young people in cities live in flats (apartments) or townhouses close to the inner city, where there is a great deal of night-life. Cities are usually busy centers of life at night, with restaurants, bars, theaters, and activities at the harbor.
Australia has a universal public health system called Medicare, under which a broad range of medical and hospital services are available either for free or with substantial government rebates. Private health care providers are free to determine their own fees and to choose what rebateable services they will provide. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme pays for some physician services as well as most prescription medications. The 2006 National Health Survey reported that about 50% of the population aged 15 years and older had private health insurance.
Life expectancy for Australians at birth is about 80 years (2008); 77.8 years for men and 83.7 years for women. A majority of Australians are considered to be in very good or excellent health, according to a 2005 National Health Survey. Excessive weight was the most common health problem in the survey, with about 62% of men and 45% of women being in the category of overweight or obese.
Family life in Australia is changing, as the nuclear family unit of two married parents and two children with the father in the workforce and the mother at home is becoming a thing of the past. In 2006 only 49.6% of Australians aged 15 and older were married; representing a decrease from 51.4% in 2001. About 33.2% of the population had never married and 11.3% were separated or divorced. About 5.9% of the population was widowed. In 2005 the marriage rate was listed as about 5.4 marriages for every 1,000 people. This figure represents a downward trend in the number of marriages. In 1986, for example, the marriage rate was at about 7.2 marriages per 1,000 people. It was estimated that about 33% of all marriages entered into in 2000–2002 would end in divorce within about 14 to 16 years. In 2005 the median age for marriage was 30 years old for men and 28 years old for women. The number of couples choosing to cohabitate without a registered marriage has been increasing. In 2006 about 7.7% of the population aged 15 years and over were in such a de facto marriage. This figure represents an increase from 5.3% in 1996 and 6.4% in 2001. The decrease in the number of marriages and increase in the number of divorces translates into a larger number of children being raised in single-parent households, primarily with the mother as head of household.
Australian families have seen an increase in the number of adult children who remain living with their parents after leaving secondary school or university. This is due in part to unemployment, as some new graduates have a difficult time getting a job. However, the dreams of most young people remain the same as those their parents had at that age—to travel "overseas" (which means England, then Europe) usually for about a year, before returning and settling down.
Australia's temperatures are generally far milder that those found in the US. Australians favor easy-to-wear, light clothing in the summer. To stay cool, many Australians wear long socks and long tailored shorts instead of slacks. This is acceptable apparel even in the workplace. Clothing styles are a mixture of European and American fashions. People tend to dress stylishly in the city and the office but wear jeans and sneakers on the weekends.
All school children wear uniforms. School caps are now almost compulsory. These are usually "legionnaire"-style cloth caps with a flap covering the back of the neck for protection from the sun. All children also wear sunscreen all year round, as Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. In fact, having a suntan is regarded as a sign of foolishness. Most people are very careful to protect their skin from the fierce Australian sun.
Good seafood is abundant along Australia's coastline, and is very popular. Australians also eat a lot of meat—especially beef or lamb roasts.
The tropical north of Australia offers wonderful fruits and vegetables and there is also an excellent local wine industry with vineyards in the south of the country. Typically, a family would have cereal and toast or eggs and bacon for breakfast; sandwiches, salad, and fruit for lunch; and either meat or seafood with vegetables and dessert for the main meal in the evening, around 7:30 pm.
The influx of European and Asian immigrants over the past 20 to 30 years has led Australians to enjoy foods from all cultures, and Australian families now incorporate Chinese, Thai, or Indian foods into their weekly meal planning. European foods, particularly Greek and Italian, have always been favorites.
One food remains an Australian tradition—a black spread called Vegemite. This is made from yeast extract plus salt and is spread on toast and butter for breakfast or eaten in sandwiches for lunch—all children are brought up eating it from babyhood. The other famous Aussie meal is meat pie. Approximately 260 million meat pies are eaten by Australians every year. Favorite desserts include the Australian Pavlova—a cakesized soft meringue filled with fruits and cream—and a small treat called Lamingtons, which are sponge cake cubes coated with chocolate and grated coconut.
Education is compulsory for students aged 6 to 15. School children enter kindergarten at about age five or six. Primary school covers grades 1 to 6. High school consists of middle school (grades 7 to 10) and senior school (grades 11 and 12). At the end of the twelfth grade, when student are about 18 years old, the student takes a public exam called the Higher School Certificate. From this exam alone the student is ranked against others in the country and his or her grade determines which university, if any, the student may enter and which course of study to follow. If the student does not plan to enter a university, he or she needs the exam to enter any other higher education institution or to show a prospective employer. Therefore, this is a very stressful exam for the student.
University entrance is extremely competitive. Fees are very low by US standards, though up until the 1980s all university courses were free. Nearly all universities are government-run. In 2003 it was estimated that nearly 74% of the adult population was enrolled in some type of higher education program. At the university level, students enter their chosen field of study immediately, without needing to complete an undergraduate degree first. Students often live in large shared houses with other students around the universities, but many also continue to live at home. Apart from the universities, there are many institutions of adult education and career training, mostly government-run, with minimal fees, where students can study for other careers.
The literacy rate among Australians is about 99%.
Australia has a growing film industry that is fast gaining international respect. In the 1980s and 1990s it produced such hits as Babe, Muriel's Wedding, Mad Max, The Piano, and CrocodileDundee. Most celebrities must travel to Hollywood, however, to gain worldwide fame—e.g., Errol Flynn, Paul Hogan, Olivia Newton-John, Mel Gibson, and Nicole Kidman. Australian television shows that have been exported and well-received in the UK and the US include The Crocodile Hunter, The Wiggles, and A Country Paradise.
Sydney's Opera House is world-famous, designed by the Danish architect Utzen to resemble sails on the ocean. It houses the Australian Opera Company, theaters, concert halls, and restaurants, and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
The country has wonderful wildlife and many natural attractions. The Great Barrier Reef is one of these—a world heritage coral reef, the longest and most complex living system in the world. Farther inland is the beautiful Kakadu National Park. This park has 275 bird species, and many ancient examples of Aboriginal folk art, and is classified by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage area, as are Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and Shark Bay in Perth. Also classified as a world heritage area is Ayers Rock—a giant red rock sacred to the Aborigines that stands majestically in the Olgas in the middle of the dessert.
Famous Anglo-Australian writers include Patrick White, the author of The Eye of the Storm and winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Germaine Greer, known for her feminist writings and her career in journalism. The composers Percy Grainger and Arthur Benjamin were both born in Australia.
Australians work in a wide variety of professional fields and trade occupations. In 2005 about 76% of the population aged 15 to 64 was employed. About 75% of the work force is employed in service-related professions and occupations, 21% in industry, and about 4% in agriculture. The unemployment rate in 2007 was estimated as 4.4%. The standard minimum wage in 2005 was at about US$362.35 per week. Full-time workers usually receive four weeks annual vacation and belong to a superannuation scheme which will give them income when they retire. The working week is Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Workers' rights are protected by numerous laws, and Australia has an attractive union system.
Australians love sports—both playing and watching them on television. The all-time favorite is football. Australians follow three different types, depending on which part of the country they come from: The Rugby League, played in N.S.W., Queensland, and Canberra; Australian Rules, played in Victoria, Southern Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania; and Rugby Union, played in N.S.W. and Queensland (also played internationally, and usually the football game played by schoolboys, along with soccer).
In summer, Australians enjoy cricket. Within Australia, the states play each other to see who will win that year's Sheffield's Shield; teams also play internationally. Australia plays countries such as Britain and the West Indies to see who will win the Ashes.
Other popular sports include swimming, tennis, surfing, and sailing. However, the fastest growing new sport in Australia today is baseball.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
In the cities, many forms of entertainment are offered. Theaters, movies, bars, and discos, plus every type of restaurant imaginable, are common. Australians enjoy a pub life similar to that found in England. But mostly they enjoy the ocean. On summer weekends the beaches are packed with surfers, and the harbors are full of boats of all types. Australians love to spend weekends outdoors near the water.
During their vacations, Australians travel within the country, usually by car, exploring the tourist attractions and the "Outback," as the dry, flat inland areas are called. When vacationing outside the country, favorite places are Bali, Fiji, and New Zealand.
Sunday afternoon barbecues at home are very popular. Traditionally, friends arrive around 2:00 pm for a barbecue lunch. The host cooks steaks, sausages, or seafood on a grill and friends talk, eat, and drink into the evening. Entertainment in Australia is mostly relaxed and informal.
Many Australians enjoy gambling, especially on horse-racing. This culminates in an event that takes place on the first Tuesday of November each year, at exactly 3:00 pm—the running of the Melbourne Cup. This event brings the country to a standstill—it is even broadcast live over loudspeakers in most offices. Everyone has a small bet on the outcome—usually "sweeps" are run among friends and at offices.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Australian hobbies are very similar to those pursued by people in the US and just as varied. There is a rich culture of Aboriginal art and wood carvings in Australia—often using various hues of clay color. Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings are found in many of the states' National Parks and reserves.
As of 2008 the question of when and how Australia might become a republic was a source of political and social debate. Australia is still part of the British Commonwealth, with the queen of England serving as the official head of state. However, many citizens and politicians have argued that the government should reorganize into a republic with a president taking over the roles currently held by the queen and a governor-general. Concerns arise as to how power will be apportioned within the new style of government. These issues have yet to be decided.
Immigration is a further concern. Many people feel that Australia cannot support more people, because of the nature of the land. Others are concerned that the country is becoming multicultural too fast. The country has maintained a strict policy on unauthorized arrivals. Asylum seekers are held in detention centers, which have been criticized at home and abroad, until their cases are heard. However, in February 2008 Australia ended its policy of sending asylum seekers into detention on small Pacific islands, with the last refugees leaving Nauru.
An increase in the rate of divorces and decrease in the number of marriages has caused an increase in the number of single-parent households. Most single-parent households are headed by women. In 2006 approximately 87% of all single-parent households with children under the age of 15 years were headed by mothers. Education and employment are issues of concern for single parents, both male and female. In 2006 about 39% of all single parents had left school before year 12. About 19% of all single mothers were employed full-time in 2006, compared to about 24% of married mothers. Approximately 32% of single-mothers worked part-time, compared to 39% of married mothers. Nearly 40% of all single mothers were unemployed and seeking employment. About 48% of single fathers worked full-time while 15% worked part-time and 10% were unemployed. About 85% of married fathers worked full-time while 6% worked part-time and 2% were unemployed. It has been estimated that 51% of all single-parents do not receive weekly income from child support or maintenance payments.
While women can and do participate in a wide variety of profession, women in the workforce tend to earn less money than men in similar employment positions. In 2007 it was estimated that women's full-time average weekly earnings were about 83.6% of those of men. Women can and do participate at all levels of government.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. http://www.abs.gov.au (21 April 2008).
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—revised by K. Ellicott